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4 ESCAPE Monday, January 21, 2013

It’s a place where the heat will leave you dazed, where the night sky could overwhelm you. One thing looms above all else, writes NAOMI ARNOLD.

THE PRESS, Christchurch

Standout: Probably Australia’s best-known natural landmark, Uluru is a sandstone formation (9.4 kilometres in circumference and 348 metres in height, penetrating the ground by 2.5km). In the southern part of the Northern Territory, it is a holy place for Aborigines. Photo: FAIRFAX

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t has rained only once in the past few months, and the air is as warm as blood. There are no mountains or coast to bring moisture to this Red Centre of Australia; from the plane window, only three things interrupt the desert and salt lakes spreading to the horizon. They erupt from the earth like gappy teeth: Mt Connor, Kata Tjuta, and, of course, Uluru. It is nearly noon when we step off the plane, with the shadows of the desert oaks huddling about their trunks and a warm, dry wind blowing. Hot sand, like brick dust, covers the ground in soft mounds. The desert spills over the borders of Yulara, the five-hotel complex that feeds, waters, houses, and entertains the 400,000 tourists who visit Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park each year. I’m one of them, here to spend four days and four nights sampling the park, a twice-listed World Heritage Area for culture and for its environment. Although I’ve already spied Uluru from the plane, all roads to the rocks start from Yulara, or Ayers Rock Resort, 6km from the airport. Established in 1976, it’s an ochre-coloured town, dominated by shade sails, rustling gum trees, and red dunes. Since last year, everything is controlled by one outfit: Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia, a subsidiary of the government-owned Indigenous Land Corporation. The town and all levels of accommodation, from campground to luxury hotel, are arranged around a collection of shops and a ring road, all of which has tourists wandering dazed, stupid from the heat. The middle features Imalung Lookout, a red dune from which you can see Uluru hunched on the horizon like a petrified witchetty grub. Further out, away from the resort, is the star in the crown, the premium desert enclave of Longitude 131. I’m staying at the resort’s premium hotel, Sails in the Desert, where the lawns are bright green, and local touches include the parched-earth carpet design and embroidered constellation cushions. The staff are wearing spotless new uniforms. Everything is spotless, in fact; there’s been a flurry of freshening-up since Voyages took over, in a bid to encourage guests to stay longer and build up more conference business. Over the last year, Sails has undergone a A$30 million refurbishment, including several new restaurants serving spectacular food, which are open to all the resort’s guests; and a new 420-seat conference centre, Uluru Meeting Place. There are galleries, shops, a supermarket, a noodle bar – Ayers Wok – and plans are afoot for a 28-hectare, 18-hole golf course. A new day spa will open soon, and coming soon are bush-tucker tours, theatre performances, and a children’s learning centre. Staff tell me the place has a busy new energy. If there’s a good time to visit Uluru and enjoy some classic Outback hospitality, it must be now. Free daily guest activities include the indigenous art markets, Wakagetti cultural dancers, bush and campfire yarns, boomerang and spear talks and throwing, and guided walks. Voyages has committed to an indigenous training programme, raising the number of indigenous staff from two to more than 170. The new activities are a quick and rather shallow introduction to Aboriginal and the local Anangu culture,

Spiritual heart of

Australia Not alone: Some of the 36 domes of Kata Tjuta at sunset, 25 kilometres from Uluru.

and as the indigenous guides are mostly from out of town, it would be easy to dismiss them as fake cultural transplants, there to provide the indigenous faces and daily amusements that tourists complained were lacking before refurbishment. But the resort’s transparent good intentions and staff make up for it. Mostly young, engaging, and funny, the guides freely admit that they’re still

learning their own customs as well as the local Anangu knowledge, some of which they have traded for their own. At typical hotels you’re removed from the staff; here, the guides manage the difficult task of making you feel like they’re friends, without a shred of artifice. They do a good job of conveying some of the reverence the traditional people of this place hold for Uluru and Kata Tjuta, and how they ate and

Photo: FAIRFAX

travelled and lived, managing the land with fire, living beneath the great domes that glow daily at sunrise and sunset, whether or not tourists come to gape. Although it is so hot your ears turn pink, and so dry you get nosebleeds, it’s cooler under the gums near the town centre, at a circle of heavy red stones. Waylon, a 23-year-old full of veiled mirth, gives a demonstration of Aboriginal law, drawing stories in the


THE PRESS, Christchurch

Monday, January 21, 2013 ESCAPE 5 GUIDE FOR VISITORS

When to visit The best time to visit Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is in autumn, winter, or spring, when the days are cooler. In summer, temperatures peak at 45 degrees Celcius.

Things to do

Ancient lands: A map of traditional Aboriginal areas, with the Red Centre highlighted, dispels the myth that Central Australia is an empty desert. Photo: NAOMI ARNOLD

GETTING THERE House of Travel has Uluru packages starting from $1945 per adult, twin share, with return airfares ChristchurchAyers Rock airport flying Air New Zealand. Included are two nights’ accommodation at Sails in the Desert Hotel, Uluru Sunrise Guided Base Walk,

Sounds of Silence Dinner, return airport transfers, and national park fees. Sales till March 31 for travel April 1-June 30. Phone 0800 838 747, call in to your nearest House of Travel store, or visit houseoftravel.co.nz.

■ COVER:

Uluru, with the Uluru-Kata Tjuta cultural centre in foreground. Photo: GETTY IMAGES

red dirt. He shows us a selection of traditional weapons and shields from his home in New South Wales, hefting a boomerang made of mulga wood, a blunt instrument aimed to take out a kangaroo so you can get closer and stab it. He gives a demonstration to a couple of Italian tourists on the grassy lawn nearby. ‘‘If that hit you it’d break your leg,’’ he says. They are hanging off his every word, and he reconsiders. ‘‘It’d be sore, anyway.’’ ‘‘What if you miss?’’ one asks. ‘‘You’ve got to hit something, otherwise it’d run away and you’d starve,’’ he explains. She nods seriously, and he says that boomerangs aren’t used for hunting kangaroo any more. ‘‘I’d rather shoot them,’’ he says to me, and waits to see if I believe him. Taine is another young New South Wales lad, newish here but similarly good-humoured. He takes me spear and boomerang throwing, and on a garden tour of the grounds, showing me red river gums, the smoke of which is good for calming and cleansing away anger; poisonous cycads, the fruit of which can be used to make a man sterile; where to find the high-protein witchitty grubs tucked into tree roots; and the tea tree, the

From here, the dappled landscape resolves into just a handful of colours.

needles of which, early white settlers discovered, presumably to their great relief, can cure constipation. The stargazing talks are an example of another new, and welcome, initiative. After dinner one night, guide Eddie walks me and 27 members of a United States Planetary Club along a dimly lit path to a sandy area out the back of the resort. There’s the Milky Way, dashed across the great black dome; there are the Seven Sisters, glittering like a clutch of diamonds. There’s Jupiter, filling the telescope’s eyepiece with stripes of orange and yellow and its four bright moons. Eddie has been fascinated with the

Precious skill: A tourist tries his hand at boomerang throwing. Photo: NAOMI ARNOLD

night sky for most of his life, and it is particularly rich in the middle of the Outback. He treats us to his favourite constellations, explosions of light looking oddly like sprawling cities, as though we’re looking back at Earth from space. It’s hard to grasp that we’re looking at history, that the stars threw out this light before even the Aboriginal people, the world’s oldest continuous culture, were here. In the dark, an easy intimacy blooms between us all as we stand, mouths open and heads dropped back, staring at the sky. It takes another few days of skirting Uluru before we finally reach it. Before we do, we see it, and nearby Kata Tjuta, from all angles: from a helicopter, as raised red moles on the surface of the marbled desert; from the dunes, as the rocks warm slowly through sunrise and glow bright red at sunset; from the back of a camel; and finally, coming close enough to touch. From here, the dappled landscape resolves into just a handful of colours: red sand, orange rock, blue sky, green trees, and tawny spinifex. The sandstone surface of Uluru is unexpectedly textured, daubed with Aboriginal cave paintings and plated with oxidised iron like a giant, rusting pot, streaked with dried black algae from the rains that sometimes pour from the sky and thunder off its sloping sides, gouging long stacks of bowl-shaped depressions. It is beautiful, and confrontingly huge; as tall as Auckland’s Sky Tower, longer than five rugby fields laid out end on end, plunging six kilometres beneath our feet. Again our heads drop back and we stare upwards, trying to comprehend the enormity of this 550-million-year-old island mountain that dwarfs us all.

■ Naomi Arnold travelled to Uluru as a guest of Tourism Australia and Voyages Indigenous Tourism.

Most tourists stay about two days, but that’s not nearly long enough to experience everything the area has to offer. ❏ You can’t miss viewing Uluru and Kata Tjuta at sunrise and sunset, when the sun makes the rocks glow pink, purple, red, and blue. ❏ See the rock from the back of a camel, the Outback’s traditional transport, with Uluru Camel Tours. ulurucameltours.com.au. ❏ Whip along the desert roads on the back of a Harley Davidson with Uluru Motorcycle Tours. ulurucycles.com ❏ Visit the art galleries at Ayers Rock Resort. ❏ See more art and learn about traditional Anangu tjukurpa (law, culture, history, and worldview) at the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Cultural Centre. ❏ Walk around the base of Uluru, a 9.4km route that takes in many sacred sites, best explained by a guide. ❏ View the vastness of the park from a helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft. Visit ayersrockresort.com/helicopter-flights. ❏ Book the unforgettable Tali Wiru, an outdoor sunset dining experience for just 20 guests. ayersrockresort.com.au/tali-wiru/ ❏ Try the Sounds of Silence dinner, a fourhour, three-course outdoor buffet including a talk by the resident startalker after sunset. ayersrockresort.com.au/sounds-of-silence/ ❏ Try a dot-painting workshop, a guided bush tucker tour, or a cave art tour with an Indigenous guide. ayersrockresort.com.au/ indigenous-tours/ ❏ If you arrive during a storm, count yourself lucky and grab the opportunity for a rare photograph; the area only receives 308mm of rain a year.

Where to stay There’s accommodation to suit everyone, situated just outside the national park. ❏ Longitude 131: So secluded it doesn’t even have road signs, this five-star, all-inclusive eco-sensitive resort is situated as close as possible to Uluru, tucked just on the edge of the national park. A minimum two-night stay, with sumptuous fittings and friendly staff and tour guides. To celebrate Longitude’s 10th birthday, a special rate of A$5274 (NZ$6607) per room is available from now till March 31, including complimentary helicopter transfer. Visit longitude131.com.au ❏ Sails in the Desert Hotel: Soaring white sails crown this luxury resort, where room rates start from A$400 per night. ❏ Desert Gardens Hotel: A 4.5 star hotel set among magnificent ghost gums, rooms range from deluxe suites to poolside rooms. From A$340 a night. Visit ayersrockresort. com.au/desert ❏ Emu Walk Apartments: Spacious, fourstar self-contained accommodation, catering for up to six people. Apartments begin at A$340 a night. Visit ayersrockresort. com.au/emu ❏ Outback Pioneer Hotel and Lodge: The Pioneer has a range of affordable rooms, cabins, and dormitories. Budget rooms start from A$198 a night. Visit ayersrockresort. com.au/outback ❏ Ayers Rock Campground: Powered campsites are A$41 a night, non-powered sites A$36, six-person cabins A$150. Trees, a pool, a playground make this a great family option.

Getting there Uluru is about six hours’ flying time from New Zealand. Both Qantas and Virgin Australia fly to Uluru, directly into Ayers Rock (Conellan) Airport from Sydney. Qantas also offers direct flights from Perth, Cairns and Alice Springs and both airlines offer connecting flights from most capital cities to Ayers Rock airport.

Spiritual heart of Australia - The Press  
Spiritual heart of Australia - The Press  

It's a place where the heat leaves you dazed, where the night sky overwhelms - and one thing looms above all.

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